Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

I must be honest. I have fallen behind on my writing due to my responsibilities to my students. Consequently, I haven’t been posting my reviews for Net Galley; as a result, it seems that I’m not being allowed access to books that I would be interested in reading. So, I’m trying to catch up and prove myself to be worthy of inclusion.

I chose and was granted permission to read it. I was interested in it because of its title. I am and always have been a major Poe fan (I memorized Annabel Lee for my 9th grade English class – this was back when students had to memorize poetry – a practice that should be reinstated but won’t be since it’s not a skill on The Test).

What a mishmash of fact and fiction! Coincidentally, I just taught a class on American Lit from the Beginning until 1865, so these names were fresh in mind. And names there were in this book. It is the paradigm of “name-dropping.”  Anyone who was anyone in the first half of the 19th century has his or her name mentioned, in passing or as a major character. Historical context is one thing, but this goes over that “red line.”

The whole premise of the novel – that Poe and Frances Sargent Locke Osgood had a physical love affair and that she bore him a child while both were married to other people – is difficult to credit. It is true that some writers have speculated that during this period Osgood had a love affair with Poe, but reliable evidence does not, at this time, exist to prove such a claim. Osgood met Poe in 1845, and they quickly became friends. She socialized with Poe at literary salons, visited him and his wife, Virginia, at their home, and published a number of poems in the Broadway Journal, of which he was editor. In the pages of the Journal they conducted an open literary flirtation, but, as critic Mary DeJong has said, “For Osgood, writing itself was a kind of performance, and she reveled in drama as much as Poe did.” Their flirtatious poems, DeJong speculates, “define their roles as patron and protégé, artist and admirer—not the quality or depth of their emotions” (The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 5th Ed., Paul Lauter, General Editor). Creativity and imagination are to be admired, but there has to be some historical basis for it in an historical fiction novel. The majority of this book is “will they or won’t they?” I won’t spoil the book for anyone who actually reads it, but the answer is right out of a Harlequin romance (or so I suppose, being too snobbish to ever have read one).

Contemporary accounts relate the devotion Poe and Virginia had to each other, although it has been suggested that Virginia and Poe had a relationship more like that between brother and sister than between husband and wife. Poe biographer Joseph Wood Krutch has suggested that Poe did not need women “in the way that normal men need them”, but only as a source of inspiration and care, and that Poe was never interested in women sexually.

Poe had several relationships with women; they were an important part of his life and his writing. The first woman, his mother, set a pattern for the other relationships – abandoned by her husband, she died at the age of 24 of tuberculosis, when Poe was two years old. Poe wrote, Poe replied, “In speaking of my mother you have touched a string to which my heart fully responds. To have known her is to be the object of great interest in my eyes. I myself never knew her — and never knew the affection of a father. Both died . . . within a few weeks of each other. I have many occasional dealings with adversity — but the want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials”. (Ostrom, John Ward. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, 2 vols, New York: Gordian Press Inc., 1966, pages 78-79). Poe clearly expresses his need of female attention and love. It is a theme we see recurring not only in his life but also in many of his literary works. His many poems and short stories were a direct response to, and result of, the many women, and their complementary sorrows, that dominated his life.

It this picture and the impression I have from his writings that makes it difficult for me to see Poe as the sex magnet Cullen portrays him in this book.

As to Frances Osgood – during most of the book she is crushing on Eddie, fretting about what other people think of her, and dashing off the occasional sentimental verse that Poe publishes in his journal. In fact, Osgood was a much-admired popular poet. She thought of herself as a professional writer rather than as a literary artist and took full advantage of the many opportunities presented by a flourishing print culture. Her work and circumstances embody both the opportunities and the constraints of the contemporary literary marketplace. Osgood published in every venue available to her—books, magazines, pamphlets, anthologies, newspapers. Her poems, including beautiful and poignant expressions of maternal love and impassioned articulations of heterosexual love and enthrallment, were widely sought after by magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Sartain’s Union Magazine. A contemporary reviewer claimed Osgood was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s equal as a poet but far superior in “grace and tenderness.” This is not the character depicted in this book.

I have other nits to pick with this book. Several of the persons – who actually lived and had a part in Edgar Allan Poe’s life – have their personalities and actions distorted. Others are represented fairly closely to what we know from history.

For example, Margaret Fuller plays a major role in the plot. She is shown to be a petty, scandal-mongering gossip who affects Native American jewelry. She is more interested in other people’s personal lives than social works or the arts. This is the Margaret Fuller who was an American journalist, critic, and women’s rights advocate associated with the American transcendentalism movement. She was the first full-time American female book reviewer in journalism. Her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major feminist work in the United States. Somehow, there is, as they say, a disconnect.

One character Cullen does get right is Rufus Griswold. His contemporaries considered him to be erratic, dogmatic, pretentious, and vindictive. He and Poe competed for the attention of poet Frances Sargent Osgood. They never reconciled their differences and, after Poe’s death, Griswold wrote an unsympathetic obituary. Claiming to be Poe’s chosen literary executor, he began a campaign to harm Poe’s reputation that lasted until his own death eight years later.

These were complex, creative people. You wouldn’t know it from this book. If you are interested in this period, historically and literarily, read biographies, literary criticism or, even better, their actual works. Just don’t waste your time on this book.

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Genres

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